In recent weeks, much doubt has been cast over the potential seven-party coalition mooted by Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan.
While opposition supporters have been swift to draw parallels with Pakatan Harapan’s stunning victory in the Malaysian general elections in May, experts have expressed caution, citing a lack of track record and a strong incumbent as potential stumbling blocks.
In light of this, should such an alliance – if it becomes reality – be taken seriously, or will it flatter to deceive like the coalitions that have come before?
For some political analysts, the idea of a credible coalition capable of rivalling the incumbent may be a pipe dream, but not one that is completely void of merit.
Speaking to the IAS Gazette, associate professor Kenneth Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said: “A coalition would allow for the opposition parties to better coordinate their policies, electoral strategies, and to pool their resources together – basically the benefits of scale.
“One benefit for the people would be that if you have a larger body of politicians and that you are able to attract good candidates, this translates to having more electable candidates for the voters to choose from.
“I would say that it is a good move in which resources can be pooled together for better strategising.”
How would this benefit?
Certainly, having small factions band together under a coalition banner would serve to limit the confusing array of alternatives on offer.
In 2006, the number of contesting parties numbered just four, including the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) coalition. That number increased to seven in the 2011 elections, with the Reform Party (RP) entering the fray and the National Solidarity Party and Singapore People’s Party splitting from the SDA. By 2015, the introduction of the People’s Power Party and Singaporeans First brought that figure up to nine.
Confused? You’re probably not the only one, and it’s a clear illustration of why a coalition can be a promising development. It’s also a sensible move in a country that employs first past the post electoral rules, where the top two parties enjoy the lion’s share of the votes. Because of that, opposition parties often have to meet before elections to decide where they contest to avoid getting into each other’s cross hairs.
Said Singapore Institute of Management associate lecturer Dr Felix Tan: “It might be beneficial for some of the opposition parties in the sense that they can pull their resources together instead of heading towards a three-party cornered fights, which will inevitably split the votes within a constituency.”
While the forming of government may prove difficult, getting into parliament itself would present the opposition with a much needed opportunity to demonstrate their worth.
For the most part, opposition parties have been unable to garner substantial parliamentary experience, with the main exception being the Workers’ Party (WP). Since becoming the first the first opposition party to enter parliament in 1984, the WP has set the bar high by winning seats in every election since.
In contrast, only the Singapore Democratic Party, the SPP, and the SDA coalition have managed to win seats at elections – all under the leadership of Chiam See Tong.
And Dr Kenneth warned that such poor results signal a much needed change in approach, saying: “One way to look at it would be that they not only have to be in campaigning mode, but rather they have to be in governing mode as well.
“The idea of being in governing mode can be achieved by having a shadow cabinet where the opposition would have to consider the feasibility of their alternative solutions as a whole.”
Are there any other factors that should be in place?
One of it could be the presence of public intellectuals, who could serve as information shortcuts for the people. From the likes of Greek philosopher Socrates, linguist Noam Chomsky, and even notable figures such as seasoned diplomats like Kishore Mahbubani or Tommy Koh, these are the people that could potentially bridge the gap between politics and polity.
While it may not directly aid the opposition, such individuals could challenge people to fundamentally reframe their thinking on policy-making and politics, leading to more informed votes.
Another factor that could tip the scales would be an external shock – perhaps a major scandal involving the incumbent – that would galvanise the people to vote for opposition candidates.
Such slip ups are rare, but they have happened before. In 2012, former People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Michael Palmer’s extramarital affair with an employee of the People’s Association came to light and triggered his resignation. The subsequent by-election was won by Lee Li Lian of Worker’s Party. Even corporate corruption scandals such as the one involving Keppel Offshore and Marine last year could potentially incline the polity to question the credibility of the incumbent, given that Keppel’s largest stakeholder is the government-owned Temasek.
Finally, a change in the mindsets of people would seem necessary. Singapore may be highly westernised, but many in the nation state still carry the pragmatic and conservative ideals espoused by the ruling government. Unless the people are bold enough to want change, the status quo is likely to remain as voters go for the less risky option of voting for the incumbent.
Challenging the status quo
On the lack of political change, Dr Felix noted: “I do not think that many Singaporeans have the gumption or the tenacity to see – or want – change in the government.
“Many want alternative voices and a credible opposition, but lacking one, Singapore will always fall back to a one-party dominance.”
The thought of an opposition candidate winning a seat is usually waved off, and for good reason. The lack of track record aside, recent elections have seen controversial figures enter the ranks of the opposition. Social activist and blogger Han Hui Hui, who contested in 2015 as an independent candidate, has been a magnet for controversy, while troubled lawyer M Ravi was also fielded in the last election under the RP banner.
Certainly, it does not take an old guard of the incumbent to fervently deny the opposition’s ability to govern to convince the average voter otherwise.
But Dr Kenneth believes that such aversion to risk would spell disaster for Singapore, saying, “If we are concerned about our survival then we have to break out of that.
“If we simply do what we are told on the basis that it is claimed to be safe and secure by the state, we would not go far. It opens room for more errors to be made, more opportunities to be missed, and even more mediocrity.”
But is change necessarily good? This year alone, European countries like Italy and Austria have been engulfed by waves of right-wing populism that have seen staunch right wingers like the Five-Star Movement and Sebastian Kurz enter the corridors of power.
And while it remains to be seen how they fare, poet Alvin Pang warned that such populism would be detrimental for Singapore, saying: “Should Singapore one day face a scenario in which the government of the day changes to a different party, I would like to think that it would be the appropriate outcome at that point.
“But I would also not want to see a much more conservative, right-leaning, populist faction take power just to satisfy a vague electoral taste for change at all costs.”
“That’s happened elsewhere in the world. It would not be good for Singapore.”